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When we were footballers — Deniz Naki: when the fight comes before the career

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How is it possible for a former U-19 European Champion to go into hiding only ten years later? This is the story of Deniz Naki.

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Photo by Thomas Starke/Bongarts/Getty Images

Deniz Naki was in his car on a motorway near Düren, Germany, his hometown, when he heard gunshots fired at his moving vehicle. Quickly ducking for his life while the car windows shattered around him, Naki, who was voted in the Team of the Tournament of the 2008 UEFA European Under-19 Championship, was at the center of a murder attempt only ten years later.

The story of the German-born talent with Kurdish roots is both tragic and inspiring. Tragic, because in the space of ten years, the former teammate of Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos, and Mats Hummels had to cut his career short to go into hiding under police protection. It is inspiring, because, if you ask Naki himself, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Deniz Naki the footballer

Deniz Naki was born in Düren, a town in North-Rhine-Westphalia in the northwestern Germany, near Cologne. Only 1.63 meters tall, Naki was a quick and creative attacking midfielder who was a key contributor to Germany’s victory in the 2008 European Championship. Future stars like David de Gea and Jordi Alba played in the competition. Although Naki made the Team of the Tournament, he failed to advance past the reserves at Bayer Leverkusen.

In 2009, he went on loan to Rot Weiss Ahlen, a second-division team where Marco Reus and Kevin Großkreutz (another fascinating footballer) played. After a successful loan spell, Naki left Leverkusen for FC St. Pauli, a club that identifies itself with left-leaning politics and prides itself on “The St. Pauli way of life,” a culture focused on social issues and political activism.

It is a way of life on which not only the supporters pride themselves, but also the board and the players. For a recent example, the St. Pauli board dismissed Turkish defender Cenk Sahin from the team after he voiced online support for the Turkish army’s operations in war-torn Syria in 2019.

When wearing the St. Pauli shirt, Naki himself stirred controversy with passionate displays of emotion. In a tense game against Hansa Rostock, an eastern German team with supporters on the opposite end of the political spectrum, Naki celebrated a goal that put St. Pauli ahead 2-0 in the 84th minute with a cut-throat gesture towards the opposing fans.

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After the game, he celebrated by approaching the away fans with the pirate-inspired St. Pauli banner draped around his shoulders. He went to the away fans and returned to the pitch with a flag bearing St. Pauli’s colors. He laid the St. Pauli banner on the ground while planting the goalpost on the pitch — an act with clear symbolism. Naki had conquered Rostock.

The cut-throat gesture towards the fans resulted in a three-match ban. The rest of the season, despite that, was a success. Naki helped St. Pauli win promotion to the top-tier of German football. Naki subsequently played 20 games in the Bundesliga, his greatest achievement in German football. In 2013, he moved to Gençlerbirliği, a Turkish club based in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

The transfer was a decision that would change his life.

The Kurdish-Turkish conflict

To understand the turn of events that led Deniz Naki living under police protection only five years after his move to Turkey, it is important to understand who the Kurds are. Numbering some 30 million people, the Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the world. Kurdistan is a roughly defined geo-cultural historical region wherein the Kurdish people constitute a prominent majority of population; it is spread across four different nation-states: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

Around 14.3 to 20 million Kurds live in Turkey, most of them in the eastern parts of the country. The history of conflict between the Republic of Turkey and various Kurdish insurgent groups is long and complicated. An article about a football player cannot do justice to the full background of the Kurdish-Turkish conflicts, so I will offer only a brief summary, which is crucial when telling the story of Deniz Naki.

There had been outbreaks of social unrest in eastern Turkey before, but the disturbances after 1980 took on a decidedly Kurdish character. Several groups demanding Kurdish independence emerged, and some of them used violence to express their desires. The most important of these groups was the Kurdish Workers’ Party, PKK for short, which was founded by a man named Abdullah Öcalan. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and United States. In 2011, the group was responsible for killing of 26 Turkish soldiers in an ambush in the Hakkari Province, located in the south-eastern corner of the country.

Deniz Naki arrived in Turkey to play for Gençlerbirliği in 2013, the same year the Turkish government started ceasefire talks with the jailed Öcalan. Following negotiations for a peaceful coexistence of Turks and Kurds, Öcalan announced the end of the armed struggle on March 21, 2013. This long-term plan, however, dramatically came undone in 2014.

In 2014, ISIS stunned the world by conquering parts of Iraq and Syria, seizing a vast territory in very little time. As a result, the world powers were initially reluctant to offer help for these threatened territories. The harsh reality was that it fell to the local population, the Kurds, to defend their cities and villages.

In September 2014, ISIS besieged the Syrian town of Kobane, located literally on the border between Turkey and Syria. Kobane appeared to be next the next Kurdish city that would be captured by ISIS, which committed massacres and kidnappings in captured villages. The situation worsened as the Turkish state showed little interest in helping the population of Kobane and shut down the border, preventing Turkish-Kurdish individuals from crossing to help their Syrian-Kurdish neighbors.

This enraged Kurds all across the world. Many Turkish-Kurdish individuals watched how ISIS bombed and destroyed Kobane, the Syrian-Kurdish town, from hilltops in Turkey only a few kilometers away.

From prison, Abdullah Öcalan made his position clear: if Kobane was defeated, the ceasefire was off. Other events escalated and in July 2015, the ceasefire broke down and violence resumed between the PKK and the Turkish government. Today, the PKK remains “at war” with the Turkish state.

Deniz Naki the Kurd

Deniz Naki’s father was a Kurdish communist who was imprisoned and tortured in Turkey before he and his family escaped to Germany. Heavily influenced by his father, Naki attended his first political demonstrations before he had turned 10 years old. Being quiet about injustice was never an option. He was, like many other Turkish-Kurds, brought up with his family’s battle against the Turkish state.

Naki’s move to Gençlerbirliği in 2013 was cut short after he decided to end the contract with the Ankara-based club. Naki had expressed support for the Kurds defending Kobane on social media. Soon afterward, he was attacked by three men, an attack he claimed was because of his Kurdish ethnicity. Speaking to the BBC, Naki said that the men swore at him and asked: “Are you that dirty Kurd? Are you Deniz Naki?”

“As I was running I heard them shout: ‘Was the first warning not enough? This is your second and last warning. Leave this country, leave this city, leave this football club!’” Naki explained.

When asked about his future, the then 25-year-old told the BBC that he had no plans to return to play football in Turkey. “There is no tolerance. I would only go back because I love my country, I love my hometown. That’s it. I will carry on with my career in Germany.”

Back to Turkey

True to his word, Naki left Turkey immediately after the attack, stating that he was worried about violence towards his family and friends. But in the summer of 2015, the same summer that PKK’s ceasefire with the Turkish government broke down, Naki returned to Turkey, signing for Amed SK.

This was a remarkable transfer in so many ways. Naki could certainly have signed for a team in the 2. Bundesliga or even a lower-table team in the top Bundesliga, but instead he decided to sign for a team in the Turkish third division.

Why? Because Deniz Naki is not the type of man who chooses career over struggle.

Amed SK is a team that reflects the ethnic tensions in Turkey on the football pitch. Based in the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir, the club was previously called Diyarbakir BB. In 2014, the club changed its name to Amed SK, “Amed” being the traditional Kurdish name for Diyarbakir. The team plays in red, green, and yellow-colored shirts, the same colors as the Kurdistan flag. For the Turkish Football Federation and state, Amed SK is often viewed as a symbol of Kurdish identity, independence, and even as supporters of PKK.

It is no surprise that a team linked to the Kurdish culture would cause tension in a league with teams from Ankara or Istanbul would cause tension, especially during the reemergence of Turkish-Kurdish conflicts in 2015. The Turkish Football Federation banned flags with the Kurdish language in stadiums and often banned Amed supporters from home games and away games.

Interviewed by BBC, Mahsum Kazikci, a member of Amed SK’s fan scene, expressed how many fellow supporters felt about discrimination:

“There is a saying: ‘We will win by resisting’… When Turks say it, there is isn’t any problem, but Amedspor fans can’t even write it on a banner. Despite this, we will never change our personality, our way. We will continue on this path. We are a legal fan club of a legal football team.”

Naki’s unique transfer epitomizes his character. He is not a football player that plays for the prospect of money or individual benefits — but one who uses football as a medium for what he believes in. Despite being threatened that he should never return to Turkey, Naki decided to leave behind the elite football world and return to a war zone to play football for something bigger than himself.

Deniz Naki the survivor

It is no surprise that on the pitch, Naki was a dominant force for Amed SK. Amed SK eliminated Bursaspor, a team with European Cup experience, in the round of 16 in the Turkish Cup. It was a result that shocked the Turkish football world: the small club from the Kurdish stronghold in eastern Turkey was able to win away against Bursaspor in the far-western parts of the country. Naki scored the decisive goal.

Amed SK came close to do the same to Turkish giants Fenerbahce in the next round. The quarter-finals of the Turkish cup are played over two legs. After drawing 3-3 against Fenerbache in Diyarbakir, Amed lost in Istanbul 3-1. The first leg was played behind closed doors and only home supporters were allowed at the away game on account of “resistance” chants in previous games by Amed supporters. Both games against Fenerbache were played without Deniz Naki. He had been banned for 12 games by the Turkish Football Federation for “ideological propaganda” after on social media he dedicated the Bursaspor victory to the Kurds who lost their lives in government crackdowns.

Things only got worse from the former Bundesliga player. A year later, in April 2017, Naki was sentenced to 18 months in jail for criticizing the government’s operations against Kurdish militants. Naki was found guilty of promoting “terror propaganda” for the outlawed PKK. He left for Germany shortly thereafter, avoiding jail time.

Just a few months later, while in his home town, Naki was the victim of an attempted murder on January 7, 2018. Speaking to Die Welt, Naki stated that he believed the attack was politically motivated and possibly planned by the Turkish MIT secret service. He went into hiding. Although he escaped unharmed, Naki’s career as a footballer was over.

Conclusion:

From making the Team of the Tournament at the 2008 UEFA European U-19 Championship to going into hiding after an attempt on his life, Deniz Naki has a story like no other. Because of his beliefs, he chose to play football in a war-zone instead of sold-out stadiums in the Bundesliga. Despite being attacked on the street and warned never to return to Turkey, Naki returned and refused to be quiet. His life and his struggle were always more important to him than what happened on the football pitch.

It is possible to have different opinions about the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, but it is hard to dispute that Naki paid a high price for his involvement.

When interviewed by a Swedish journalist after the attempted murder, Naki, who still needed police surveillance, was asked whether he was ready to die for his cause. He said:

“Every Kurd will have to answer that question sometime in their life... It is hard to give a definite answer. But if death comes before the people, before the peace, before a life in dignity — let it come.”

This article is dedicated to Torborg Nelson — Vila i frid.

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